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Jazz Cosmos: Music and Modern Physics

Jazz Cosmos: Music and Modern Physics
Victor L. Schermer By

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To the memory of Leonard Bernstein, the greatest musical educator of all time, a great conductor and composer who loved jazz and whose televised lectures brought a whole generation of listeners into insightful contact with the music.

Maybe you remember how astrophysicist Carl Sagan's vision of "billions and billions of stars" captured the awesome feeling of seeing the firmament of the heavens, marveling at its beauty and contemplating the incredible universe. Well, strange as it may seem, many of us get a similar feeling of cosmic wonder when we hear a truly great jazz performance. Sun Ra's "intergalactic" ideas about jazz may not be so far-fetched after all. Indeed, striking parallels can be drawn between jazz as a form of musical expression and the universe as understood by modern physics and cosmology.

It's no accident that contemporary jazz musicians themselves have been thinking along these lines. Fred Hersch's album, Night and the Music (Palmetto, 2007) includes tunes such as "Galaxies Fragment" and "Gravity's Pull." At another level, Pat Martino's theory of guitar substitutions derives from his own theory of how the universe all comes together like the numbers on a clock. And his diagrams look like those from a physics or math textbook.

Whether it is the Zen-like rapidity and precision of Martino's articulations on the guitar, the improvisational range of Art Tatum's quick-thinking variations on a single theme, the excursions of Cecil Taylor into new pianistic possibilities, or the subtle dimensions of Miles Davis playing "My Funny Valentine," great jazz performances convey something of the beauty and complexity of the universe as it is perceived by us creatures who are able to see, hear, and investigate the world around us, from the smallest subatomic particles to the "billions" of galaxies and nebulae that inhabit the infinite cosmos that exploded from nothing in a flash of time billions of years ago. Music itself is part of that universe, the conscious human part. And jazz is the growing tip of that music, so in some sense it is at the growing edge of the universe. As far back as antiquity, the Greek mathematician Pythagoras spoke about "the music of the spheres." (Curiously, Thelonious Monk's middle name was "Sphere," And he had an occasional ritual of spinning around like a planet on its axis.) Music, mathematics, and the universe have been connected with one another since ancient times.

Furthermore, the development of jazz parallels the expansion of the universe. Jazz exploded from the "big bang" of a few musicians performing on the streets, brothels, and bars of New Orleans to what is now a multi-faceted genre of art and entertainment that is global, incorporates many motifs and cultures, and has detonated into limitless styles and variations of themes, scales, sounds, instrumentations, emotions, and personal statements with no end in sight. Jazz contains billions and billions of instrumental and vocal moments in a sonic universe that touches our individual and collective consciousness in many ways.

Relativity, Quantum Leaps, and String Theory—How Jazz Mirrors the Universe of Modern Physics

Historically, the structure and function of jazz parallels the evolution of modern physics. The development of musical understanding and the study of the universe have echoed, if not crossed paths, with one another. How do these developments play out? Before exploring some commonalities between jazz and physics, it must be said that physics does not explain jazz or vice-versa. To some extent, acoustics and neuroscience may account for some elements of what we hear and experience as listeners. But jazz is a spontaneous human creation, and the same can be said of science. The feature they share in common is consciousness. Jazz and modern physics came about in the same epoch of history, and the consciousness of that era is manifest in jazz, physics, and a host of other endeavors. Thus, jazz and modern physics are marked by a common sensibility and awareness that emerged around the turn of the twentieth century and has continued to evolve since then.

To grasp some of the parallels between jazz and physics, we have to go back to Isaac Newton, whose three laws of motion once appeared to hold the entire universe in its sway. Jazz has its own "laws of motion" (sometimes called "swing"), and, like modern physicists, they challenge any ideas Newton might have had when the proverbial apple fell upon his head.

From Newton to Einstein

Modern twentieth century physics resulted from inconsistencies in astronomical and subatomic observations (measurements of the largest and smallest) that contradicted Newton's laws of motion. Newton's laws assumed a fixed frame of reference for all observations, a frame which consisted of an invisible substance in space which astronomers called the "ether." Newton's laws, based on the idea of the ether as a fixed frame of reference for all motion, predicted that a change in the speed of light would occur when measured by an observer in motion relative to the ether, like an airplane whose speed is affected by the jet stream. The Michaelson-Morely experiment of 1887, two hundred years after Newton, showed that this was not the case. In their ingenious experiment, it turned out to everyone's surprise that the speed of light was the same regardless of how the light was moving relative to the earth's motion. Newton's laws could not account for this finding. The constancy of the speed of light (relative to any motion of the observer) provided the foundation of Einstein's theory of relativity, which changed the face of physics.

Newton's classical physics was a product of the 17th-18th Century European Enlightenment. (In fact, when critics and scholars refer to "Eurocentric" thought and music, they are really referring to the ideas that congealed during the Enlightenment, when the world was seen as an orderly, permanent creation of a male Caucasian omnipotent God.) Newton's universe was like a God-driven clock where particles of matter moved around like machines. Time and space were believed to be fixed and unchangeable. Motion was totally predictable and accounted for, with no ambiguity, chaos, or shifts of perspective. The universe moved in an orderly course that was immutable and unchangeable, like the grandfather clock that ticked away into the night.

With relativity theory and quantum mechanics, that vision of reality changed forever. In 1905, around the same time that jazz was born, Albert Einstein, a young scientist (who happened to play the violin quite well, and not unlike many young musicians was unrecognized and struggling to earn a living), published his first paper on "special relativity," defying two centuries of Newton's physics by contending, among other things, that time and movement were not fixed like the ether but depended on the observer, He also theorized that energy and matter could be converted into one another (eventually leading to atomic energy). In 1915, when ragtime was in vogue and Louis Armstrong first picked up the trumpet, Einstein went further and held that space was not what it appeared to be, that it could be bent and curved by gravity. Thus, time, space, matter, and energy, instead of being fixed and permanent, could to some degree be "played with" by man and nature, just as jazz musicians improvise around melodies, harmonies, and scales.

Newton/Bach and Einstein/Armstrong: Strange Coincidences

To make a key point (no pun intended) about the connection between music and physics, we have to go back to the development of the piano, which was then called the "fortepiano" because, unlike its predecessor, the harpsichord, it could make both loud and soft sounds. The piano was intended to be a perfect musical machine, the equivalent of the Newtonian clock. To make that happen, Bach and his cohorts developed what we would now think of as the "software," the tuning of the strings that would allow all the key signatures of the chromatic scale to be played with equal value. It was the "well-tempered" scale that you hear very clearly when, say, a jazz pianist like Kenny Barron goes up a step or two and plays the melody in a different key. Bach and Newton were roughly contemporaries. The well-tempered chromatic scale, with its fixed, immutable tuning was the musical equivalent of the unchangeable quantities of Newton's Laws. As Newtonian physics depicted a consistent theory of all the phenomena in the universe, the well-tempered scale could accommodate all forms, scales, and key signatures of (Western classical) music, that is, until jazz came along around the same time as Einstein.

Another musical quantity that was as steady of the ticking of a clock was the "beat." In the baroque music of Bach's time, each beat, like clockwork, was equal in emphasis and duration. From the downbeat to the last note, the music ticked off without change. To the modern listener, that way of playing seems a bit stiff, so today's performers of Bach may alter the pace, but not so in his era). A performance in Bach's time had clockwork accuracy, and very beat had equal value.

In a similar vein of constancy and precision, the pitches of the notes were standard for anyone who used the same tuning fork. In addition, the sonorities of the instruments and voices all strove for the same ideal. All good violinists, for example, sounded pretty much alike. (Compare that with the very different sound timbre, for example, of Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane on tenor saxophone.) So, like Newton's unchangeable laws, musical pitch, tempo, and sound were constants. Composers like Bach used them in highly creative ways, but were restricted to a limited and specific sonic vocabulary.

With minor adjustments, such as glissandos and shifts of tempo, that state of affairs lasted for three centuries, and is still the gold standard of most classical performances. However, at the same time that Einstein changed the face of physics, jazz changed the complexion of Western music. Like relativity theory, jazz capitalized on the fact that time, space, and sound (the equivalent of matter/energy) could be altered and "bent" to suit taste, purpose, and expression. Jazz allowed composers and players to alter rhythm, pitch, and sound in ways that still make some classical musicians bristle. What they don't realize is that outside of the classical European repertoire which they were taught, musicians have always used every means at their disposal to achieve self-expression. Folk music, Indian raja, African drum rhythms, and many other musical forms and genres use diverse scales, sounds, syncopations, and inflections that are outside the Western classical mold. Music, broadly defined, is the use of sound (and silence, as John Cage argued) by whatever means possible to achieve an effect. Jazz is in good company when it uses swing rhythms, "blue" notes, plunger mutes, growls, squeaks, and whatever else it wants when the mood or meaning calls for it. Western classical music occupies only a very narrow window within the scope of world music.

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